For someone who seems to be frequently perceived as a certified melomaniac, I didn’t find myself listening to much music during our visit to The Adam Art Gallery’s show, ‘Passages’, on Friday afternoon. This wasn’t at all to do with a lack of interest regarding the exhibition; rather my entire mode of listening was consumed with interpreting my peer’s reactions (and apparent non-reactions) to the three artist’s work. While I do appreciate what Florian Hecker and Luke Fowler have to offer sonically, I resonate on a deeper level with Susan Philipsz as she has been a fundamental inspiration in my exploration of sound as an artistic medium. Having the chance to listen to Susan’s lecture and converse afterwards feels just as empowering as receiving keyboard lessons from someone like Bill Laurance from Snarky Puppy. I had visited the gallery to see ‘Passages’ multiple times, therefore I didn’t feel too bad about my wavering attention span or lack thereof. My mind was somewhere else and as much as I tried to appreciate what I was supposed to be listening to and viewing, both my senses were occupied with gauging the reactions of those around me and trying to explicate the feelings that these reactions were eliciting.
I have always enjoyed sharing personal experiences that I deem to be meaningful and provocative with others by stepping aside and becoming a passive observer. By this I mean I relish watching people engage in the same experiences that I previously witnessed; contemplating their transformation, observing their sensations of emotions and interpreting their reactions. This could take the shape of anything from listening to a specific piece of music with someone to introducing them to a certain level within a video game. The word for this, as I discovered recently, is compersion. Ideas of voyeurism spring to mind but I assure you it is completely PC. However, I received no such satisfaction when watching those present on Friday observe the works on display. Instead I began to have unsolicited feelings of guilt and slowly felt more and more defensive of the sounds that seemed to be, judging by people’s expressions and behaviour, unappreciated. These thoughts caught me off guard and I felt ashamed in myself for becoming so personally involved to the point where I began to worry about what others thought of work that had no relation to me or my identity. I observed what seemed to me to be feelings of apathy, disconnect and mild disgust. In truth the entire affair seemed more like a test of endurance than anything positive or enjoyable. I seemed to pick up on feelings of uncertainty, uncertainty at what the point of the works even was or if one of importance even existed outside themselves. Was it a lack of understanding? A lack of respect? Or just a lack of appeal and interest?
This whole ordeal reminded me of the conversation we shared a few weeks back regarding how to read artwork and I speculated that audiences approach work with a habitually formed literacy and vocabulary. I feel that in the case of an exhibition like this, most people assume the wrong kind of vocabulary and are then left bewildered or disappointed when expectations are not met. We attempt to apply the same contextualisation and understanding of traditional music to more abstract sound when we could be trying to apply that same method of analysis of sound to music. Humans have, it seems, an inherent and incessant need to interpret the patterns they recognize in the world around them in order to codify some kind of meaningful existence. Patterns provide satisfaction, pleasure and even relief. We are pattern recognition machines and it seems only natural that something as proliferous in patterns as music provides us with so much enjoyment and fulfilment. But what happens when no discernible pattern is perceived within said music? Is it deemed inconsequential in the ears of a public majority, too esoteric to be commercialised, or simply tossed aside with the misnomer of ‘privileged’ music? Does it lose individualistic value, an increasingly important and worrying factor in the now oversaturated music market and its consumption as a means to shape one’s own self-identity? It seems to me that we have been conditioned to appreciate a segregated and biased form of what ‘music’ is or could be.
The notion that music must contain and elicit emotion to possess inherent value is archaic and to simply neglect sound art’s potential would be an act of ignorance. Music is plagued with the concerns of its own ontological self; references that only carry semantic significance within the human construct of sonic hierarchies that act as sacred foundations to be manipulated by the next musician to form piece after piece after piece. Is it too much to ask that we stop searching for references, meaning and reason and simply disembody the sound from its source in order to let it become its true self? Sound, pure sound, is liberating. I feel like a vast majority of musicians and non-musicians have forgotten how and why music actually works. Do they forget that the music they create and listen to in reality consists of preordained pitches arranged in aesthetically pleasing patterns based upon hierarchies that surreptitiously bypass our rational thought processes in order to hijack our emotional state? (Sounds crazy but look into it). Music is heard as black and white, consonant and dissonant, beautiful and ugly, good and bad. This fits here, that fits there. Music is always for something or for someone. Sound is only ever for itself. However, it only exists for itself until we choose to utilize it in the creation of music; the arranging of sonic hierarchies.
This probably comes across like I have a strong dislike towards music but I assure you that this is not the case. I am simply attempting to question all that I have been taught in order to better understand my position within the field of music and sound and to further develop a stronger critical voice. I have only briefly touched upon the discourse surrounding the relationship and dissimilarities between music and sound as this conversation requires more context than I can give under current circumstances. These are the kinds of questions that I contemplate daily and what will play a dominant role in the writing of my thesis. I don’t believe that great art is necessarily political, but I do believe that great art necessarily challenges. In the words of a certain ski instructor from Asspen: “If you attempt to analyse or read sound art in the same way you analyse or read music then you’re gonna have a bad time”.